|Miso Hornay, Landa Lakes, columnist Pollo Del Mar, hostess Diva Dan and Cookie Dough pose outside Berkeley’s White Horse Saloon.
Notorious Sainted Glamazon About Town
Many years ago, when I lived in Cleveland, Ohio my favorite stomping grounds was a little bar located off Detroit Ave. called The Cage. Not as seedy as the smaller dive bars in nearby Ohio City and not as pretentious as the night clubs which would later spring up blocks away in Lakewood, The Cage was a wonderful place for a young 20-something gay boy to come of age and sow his wild oats.
In a town the size of Cleveland, which is large enough to house a healthy gay populace but not quite major enough to offer a true selection of places to go, The Cage provided the perfect combination of local watering hole, cruisy hot spot and, depending on the night of the week, a wide array of specialty activities. Tuesday was the amateur strip contest. Thursday nights were karaoke. Fridays and Saturdays, the dance floor was packed. And every Sunday, Melissa Ross hosted the city’s most popular drag show.
Years before I ever dreamed of putting on a dress – ok, maybe I’d dreamt it, but never actually did – I remember finding Melissa absolutely fascinating. It seems many locals agreed. Once Melissa was named among of the city’s “50 Most Interesting People” by Cleveland Magazine, a real feat 15 years ago in the almost entirely Red State of Ohio.
In all honesty, I was never much impressed with Melissa’s actual drag. For my tastes, she always leaned a little too far toward helmet hair and beaded, sequin-heavy, off-the-rack gowns from J.C. Penney (at least that’s where I imagined she got them). Melissa was unquestionably what we might call “Old School” here in San Francisco, where a more punk rock style of performance has ruled the roost since Trannyshack rose to legendary proportions after its inception in 1996.
One night after her show, fueled by enthusiasm and alcohol, I told Melissa she reminded me of my Aunt Nancy. No matter how blurry the rest of the evening remains, I remember vividly the look of disgust on her face at my half-compliment. It seems drag queens, even then, didn’t strive to look like a Midwestern working mom. “I meant if she dressed up,” I slurred in vain, hoping to mend the faux pas. She still looked underwhelmed.
At any rate, what I found genuinely intriguing about Melissa is how she lived what I imagined to be this amazing double life. By day, he was Richard, your average, ordinary flight attendant (albeit with eyebrows tweezed for the Gods). At night, in all his finery, he became Melissa, Cleveland’s premiere drag personality, most celebrated emcee and a bona fide celebrity among the local gay populace.
That Melissa, in addition to her secret (or, more likely, not so secret) life of drag, actually had a life as a man made her even more remarkable, really.
As is the case in many smaller towns across the country, most of Cleveland’s drag performers, at least at that time, were actually transgender women whose environs proved so oppressive, their only legal means of income was performing. That fact aside, Melissa’s glamorous life of traveling and drag always interested me, though it was nothing I might ever have imagined for myself.
Of course, these memories returned loud and clear this past Friday night when my drag “sister” Miso Hornay, Cookie Dough and I packed into Landa Lakes’ Honda Civic and headed across the Bay to The White Horse Saloon. As Berkeley’s most popular (perhaps only?) gay bar, the venue draws an interesting cross-section of the East Bay’s gay community, which has always reminded me of The Cage and my early days in Cleveland.
Unlike the City, where a wide selection of bars and night clubs allows us to divide into like-minded (I’d almost go so far as to say “homogenous” and, largely, “boring”) groups, a small town and its lack of options has a way of truly reflecting the breadth of our community. Despite being only miles from San Francisco, this is equally true of the White Ho’, as it’s affectionately called.
On any given evening, older people drink the night away at the bar. Guys I could easily imagine at 440, The Edge or any number of SOMA bars, play pool in the windowed smoking area. Younger lesbians find their way to the dance floor. And, on every-other-Friday night, any combination there-of show up for Diva Dan’s drag show Wicked Gorgeous.
Since Diva started the show in April, she’s twice invited me to perform, and both times have been incredible experiences. Though the crowds are quiet, they appreciate the show and tip generously, which is always a good thing! This most recent time, after performing we chatted with Diva and her husband (who, though they’ve been together 17 years, will celebrate a year of wedded bliss on Halloween!), mingled with the audience and generally had a great time. The whole experience took me back to my roots in some ways, which I really enjoyed.
Those days at The Cage are long gone, of course. So is that bar, in fact. It was shut down years ago and replaced with a brand new, state-of-the-art annex combining several gay bars in one waterfront location on Lake Erie.
As for Melissa Ross, I have no idea what she’s doing these days. Though I’d like to imagine she’s planning an early retirement somewhere, perhaps in one of those exotic tropical locations she so often visited for work, it’s much more likely she’s still flying and performing. I’d go so far as to bet she’s got a whole new crowd of 20-somethings eating out of her hand now.
I just wonder, Does she still looks like my Aunt Nancy?
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